Skip to main content

Partnership Explores Legal Avenues for River Protection in Nepal

Annalise Biesterfeld | February 19, 2021
Share This:

World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an international organization focused on protecting natural resources, wildlife, and communities, recently partnered with the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Environmental Advocacy Center (EAC) to propose legal and policy strategies for protecting rivers in Nepal.

The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) leads the implementation of the alliance with WWF on behalf of the university at large. As a university-wide organization, ISEN works across academic departments and disciplines, playing an integral role in establishing the connections that make such partnerships possible for students and faculty. Paired with clients and organizations like WWF, law students provide real-world legal assistance under the tutelage of Northwestern legal experts and professors.

Why Nepal?

Nepal has rapidly growing demands for electricity to help grow its economy improve the well-being of its citizens. To meet demands, Nepal is pursuing a rapid expansion of its power sector. Given the abundance of rivers in Nepal, its terrain is well suited for hydropower, which functions as the country’s main source of electricity. While hydropower does not emit as much greenhouse gas as fossil fuel generation, it runs the risk of causing significant ecological damage when developed without careful planning, such as fragmentation of migratory habitat for fish and inundation of communities and forests. The goal of the EAC-WWF project was to support the sustainable electricity journey of Nepal while protecting its natural resources—particularly the Karnali river system and other important rivers. One of Nepal’s three major river systems flowing from the Himalaya Mountains, the Karnali, is the longest, largest, and only remaining one with no hydropower dams currently built upon it.

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

To accomplish this goal, WWF and EAC focused on public policy avenues. With support from EAC legal experts, two students at the Pritzker School of Law were assigned to this project, gaining hands-on experience by providing legal research to a real-world client. With regular guidance from EAC and policy experts at WWF, the students provided WWF with recommendations for legal protections of the Karnali river at the end of the semester.

“We were looking at existing law in Nepal and how that could be interpreted, utilized, improved, or amended to provide greater protections for rivers,” said Leigh Kramer, one of the law students who worked on the project with WWF. “We were also looking at international examples of river protections and seeing how those might inform opportunities to...implement new legislation or amend laws that already exist in Nepal.”

Kramer, along with her student research partner Marie Allison, faced numerous unique challenges while working on this project with WWF. These challenges included language barriers in legal documents, a vastly different legal system than the student researchers were used to, the recent transition of the Nepalese government to a federalist system, and uncertainties related to how recommendations might be perceived given cultural and political realities in Nepal.

“Some of the challenges included finding which laws were current—given Nepal’s recent transition to a federalism system—and what law looks like in practice, because law can be enforced differently than what's actually on paper,” noted Allison. “We also looked at creating solutions that can be implemented at a local or provincial level aside from [working] on a national scale perspective.”

Almost all electricity in Nepal comes from hydropower, which can have many ecological detriments in the form of disrupting ecosystems and human and wildlife displacement.

“In Nepal, their plans to expand the power sector for the next several decades are focused almost exclusively on hydropower,” notes Jeff Opperman, the Global Lead Freshwater Scientist for WWF, who worked with Kramer and Allison on this project. “We are hoping to engage in a constructive and pragmatic way with the government. Together, we hope to identify which rivers are the highest priority for environmental and cultural social values, what are the options for planning that will allow Nepal to meet its hydropower objectives while reducing impacts, and to look more broadly at energy options. We’re not just assuming that hydropower is the only generation-technology that should be pursued in Nepal.”

To successfully aid the Nepalese government in protecting the remaining free flowing rivers such as the Karnali on a national scale, WWF and students from EAC incorporated previously conducted reports in which provincial and local communities identified environmental and social values of specific rivers. This allowed the team to make recommendations to the Nepalese government about which rivers’ protection should be prioritized and how that could be done. Northwestern’s representatives Allison and Kramer helped make recommendations to WWF on what policy and legal work could be done to protect rivers based on existing legal statutes and new policies.

The partnership between Northwestern and WWF offers opportunities for law students to engage with unique cases that take them out of the classroom and into a real-world environment. Kramer echoed the perspective of her and her partner, stating: “It was a really awesome opportunity for us both to work on an issue we might not have been exposed to otherwise, and we both learned a lot about an important environmental issue and a really wonderful culture. It was a really great experience working with EAC, the Nepal team, and WWF.”